Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Navigating the Doctoral Experience: The Role of Social Support in Successful Degree Completion

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

Navigating the Doctoral Experience: The Role of Social Support in Successful Degree Completion

Article excerpt


The doctoral degree is considered the pinnacle of education, and it is pursued by nearly 100,000 students in the U.S. (Carnegie Classification, n.d.). Doctoral students are among the best and brightest students, having championed the highly competitive selection process (Ali & Kohun, 2006; Gilliam & Kitronis, 2006). However, 50% of doctoral students will not finish their degree (Walker, Golde, Jones, Bueschel, & Hutchings, 2008), and 40,000 drop out every year (Ali & Kohun, 2007). In fact, many leave their programs in the first year (Esping, 2010; Lovitts, 2001). Doctoral student attrition is a silent epidemic in the U.S. (Ali & Kohun, 2007; Lovitts, 2001).

Through empirical investigation, researchers have found that doctoral student attrition is linked to two main factors, stress (Lovitts, 2001) and feelings of social isolation (Ali & Kohun, 2006; Hawlery, 2003; Lewis, Ginsberg, Davies, & Smith, 2004). First, with regard to stress, doctoral students typically " ... face enormous demands upon their time, energy, intelligence, endurance, patience, and organizational skills" (Committee on the College Student, 2000, p. 1); all of which heighten their stress level. Greater stress is experienced when it involves multiple and persistent stressors, rather than a single event (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Doctoral students are significantly more stressed than the general public, and they report that their stress is mainly attributed to their graduate programs (Cahir & Morris, 1991). The stressors of doctoral study include relative poverty, anxiety, sleeplessness, academic demands, fear of failure, examinations, and time constraints (Bowman & Bowman, 1990; Esping, 2010). Additionally, doctoral students also find themselves having to manage the socialization into their new roles, building and maintaining new relationships, and creating their professional identity (Golde, 1998; Lee, 2009; Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001). Because of these demands placed on doctoral students, their stress levels persist, and even increase, as they progress through their programs (Cahir & Morris, 1991).

The second factor linked to doctoral student attrition is the feeling of social isolation, which refers to the absence of meaningful social connections (Hortulanus, Machielse, & Meeuwesen, 2006; Lovitts, 2001). The social connections that are important for doctoral students include those with fellow students, faculty members, and their superiors (Ali & Kohun, 2007). Feelings of social isolation stem from confusion about program expectations and miscommunication (or a lack of communication) with their peers and faculty (Ali & Kohun, 2006; Lovitts, 2001). Social isolation is often exacerbated by being in a new, unfamiliar, and stressful environment, all of which are traits common to doctoral programs (Ali & Kohun, 2007; Lovitts, 2001).

Literature Review

Social Support

A construct termed social support can offer doctoral students a sense of refuge by reducing both stress and feelings of social isolation (Ali & Kohun, 2006; Hadjioannou, Shelton, Fu, & Dhanarattigannon, 2007). Social support typically stems from people to whom one is socially tied (e.g., family members and friends) and is defined as what they "say and do regarding stressful events" (Lakey & Orehek, 2011, p. 482). A social support network is comprised of several individuals within one's environment who influence one's perceptions of his or her environment and might include family members, friends, and co-workers (Kelly, 2005). Social support can take various forms, including emotional support (attempts to alleviate negative affect), professional support (mentoring and guidance), and practical support (money or help with task completion) (Heller & Rook, 1997; House, 1981; Nelson & Brice, 2008; Rosenholtz, 1989; Schaefer, Coyne, & Lazarus, 1981; Singh & Billingsley, 1998). …

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